Much of the populist appeal of darts – first, in its takeover of terrestrial television screens in the 1970s and 1980s, and then in its unprecedented revival and growth under Barry Hearn’s chairmanship – has been aligned to the sport’s accessibility and its promotion of the ordinary accomplishing the extraordinary.
As Hearn once told me: “I look at the players and think: ‘Jeez, he looks like the bloke who lives around the corner from me.’ There’s nobody that’s going to run the 100m faster than Usain Bolt. They are just very normal people.”
Bolt’s achievements and the power of his enormous frame have made an icon of the Jamaican star. He is, in a sense, untouchable – one to be admired rather than replicated. That, as Hearn says, is where darts has found an ever-growing niche.
Rob Cross’ world title carved a further opening into the mainstream, with the notion of the rags-to-riches tale of the one-time electrician opening eyes to the possibilities within a sport attracting television viewing figures in the millions.
Cross’ talents, of course, are indisputable. However, the speed of his transition to the sport’s pinnacle has – at least – provide the next generation with a tangibility not present in the electric strides of Bolt.
If it seems, at this stage, unusual to place the player ranked 58th in the PDC Order of Merit among this discussion, it is because – on the surface – it is. Jamie Caven, though, is a unique case.
Level on the two-year prize money list with Australian youngster Corey Cadby, Caven appears as just another well-respected professional on a 225-name list topped by the irrepressible Michael van Gerwen.
His achievements at the oche are, in themselves, those of a solid pro: the World Youth Masters champion in 1993 and a seven-time PDC Tour event winner – the most recent of which coming five years ago against the Dutchman Jelle Klaasen, a World Championship semi-finalist and Premier League stalwart.
On the face of it, Caven’s is a tale that harks back to the notion of palpable realism that the sport has offered to regular people.
By his own admission, he is in his dream job, having grown up obsessed with the sport. “I used to go into school and talk to the other kids about Eric Bristow and Jockey Wilson, and nobody knew what I was on about,” he recalls.
Even so, Caven’s circumstances might test Hearn’s theory. He is – perhaps – a hybrid; perched on the thin blurred line between the ordinary and the extraordinary. The 42-year-old has been blind in his right eye since he was 18 months old – allegedly, he says, the result of a bee sting. If logic is any barometer, Caven’s career has broken it.
Eleven years into a professional career on the PDC Tour, however, the Leicester-born player speaks not only with the attitude of a grafter, but that of a sportsman for whom excuses have never sufficed. Without ever making light of his unique situation, there is an admirable refusal to describe it as at all disadvantageous.
“It wasn’t like I got to six or seven and then had to start all over again,” he explains. “People do make a big deal of it and I do understand that, and I’d never say that it’s not a big deal because – to a lot of people – it will be.
“People have problems that develop and that can have an enormous impact on them. But to me personally, it isn’t much of a big deal because I’ve never had to start again.”
Quite simply, Caven has never known any other way – certainly not with dart in hand. Never has he had to readjust his methods to suit a new condition, and nor has he ever wasted his time considering the obvious hypotheticals that have run alongside of his chosen career.
“People often ask how good I would be if I could see out both eyes, but ultimately, I could be completely useless,” he theorises.
“If I was given 20/20 vision, it might freak me out a bit – it would give me a completely different view of the world. If you spend a day closing one eye, it would seem ever so weird to you. You’d struggle to cope for an entire day.
“If someone gave me the sight back in my right eye, I think I would probably walk around with my right eye closed.
“It might be amazing, but the actual perspective of everything would really be totally different.”
As far as viewpoints go, Caven’s is a welcome take both on normality and individuality. He doesn’t drive – he reckons that he could do, but for the steep costs of taking out insurance, given his predicament. Once again though, it is no more than a minor frustration. He has friends and family who drive and the train is equally sufficient.
“We’ll never know,” he chuckles, while debating how the idiosyncrasies of his technique might have differed had circumstances not intervened.
In a sport where precision is everything, with little else mattering beyond the physical setup and the consistency of arm action, it is hard to imagine how Caven has crafted such a career.
A right-handed thrower – as Caven is – traditionally lines up his throw from beneath his right eye, as if a sniper resting his weapon on his strong shoulder.
It is a technique that Gary Anderson has utilised to significant effect. However, without the use of that right eye, logic would suggest that Caven should have no chance of achieving the consistency required to exist at the top level of the sport.
As a result, he focuses out of his left eye despite its position not aligning to his throwing arm. It means that when he appears to throw poorly, it is often the result of an inability to line the dart up correctly to its target.
“I don’t see anything until it hits the board,” he admits. “It’s all muscle memory. Sometimes, a lot of my darts go to the left but that is just the nature of the beast. I can’t really correct that. I don’t see my darts while they’re going through the air.”
For Caven, the recipe has been simple – practice. Since averaging 85 on his pub league debut as a 13-year-old, his approach has not altered.
“The more you do something, the better you become at it” – it is an adage that he unveils multiple times during our conversation. It was the wise maxim that would see him crowned the world’s top young player, winning the World Youth Masters as a 17-year-old.
Stardom, though, would have to wait.
If a loss of sight in one eye was, at his age, almost a subconscious inconvenience, Caven would face another challenge three years after his youth darting glory. An undiagnosed illness resulted in major surgery to remove a tumour-ridden pancreas. Even more than two decades on, it leaves the man ironically nicknamed ‘Jabba’ requiring daily injections of insulin.
Looking back on the episode, it was, he confesses, the toughest of moments.
“After I won the World Youths, I was tipped for great things,” he explains. “Youngsters tend to be propped up when they achieve something at that age – making inroads in the professional game and becoming a worldwide superstar. I never really had time for that success to bed into me before I did become really unwell.”
Of course, when Caven recounts a chapter that saw his younger self introduced to the harsh perspective of life, he speaks of a very different medical era.
“With the surgery, there was no real keyhole option,” he says. “So rather than having three little cuts in my abdomen, I have an ark in the shape of a dartboard all the way between my chest and my bellybutton. I was unable to walk unaided for a while afterwards because everything had just been ripped from me.
“The surgery was such a big deal. To have that at the age of 20 with my life just really starting, it felt like the end of the world.”
While also caring for his own new-born baby, Caven had been experiencing blackouts – the most serious of which led to a dramatic stay in hospital. He would not be discharged until major surgery had been completed. A series of exploratory scans on his whole body had been conducted in an attempt to uncover the cause of a mystery illness. Eventually, they found a mole.
“Nowadays,” he sighs as he recounts a terrifying time in the life of a young father, “You walk into a doctor’s surgery with a problem and they’ve given you a diagnosis an hour later. 20 years ago, it wasn’t like that. They did an exploratory surgery and I had to sign a form saying that they had the freedom to do what they had to do and to take out whatever they had to take out.
“The surgery was such a big deal. To have that at the age of 20 with my life just really starting, it felt like the end of the world”
“When I came around, I found out that they’d removed my pancreas. The specialist explained to me that the pancreas is shaped like a chilli, but that mine was just covered in tumours and had to be removed – whether they were benign or malignant was irrelevant really.”
It is a tale of adversity, but also one that highlights the strength of character of one of the sport’s most remarkable figures. Of the lasting effects of the illness, Caven is typically robust in his positivity. He would soon return to the oche.
“I’ve been stuck with it for more than half of my life,” he points out. “Early on in my life, it was much more difficult because I had to keep my blood-sugar levels monitored and I could only have certain things at certain times.
“Back then, it was a massive deal for me. It was like the end of the world, being a young lad and having to behave like an OAP. But now, I never let things get to me in that sense – you have to play with the hand you’re dealt with.”
More than 20 years on, Caven is a seasoned member of the tour and a veteran of ten World Championships. He failed to qualify for last year’s showpiece event – the first time he has not reached the end-of-year tournament.
At the same time, however, ‘Jabba’ looks at the situation philosophically, highlighting the strength in depth on the professional circuit. For a man now hugely invested in safeguarding the sport’s future through his own academy setup, the increased competition between a bulk of talented throwers can only viewed positively in the long-term.
“It’s really healthy for the game,” he says of the tiered system implemented by Hearn and the PDC. The Pro Tour is affiliated to the Challenge Tour, set up for those without a tour card, with the Development Tour acting as a stepping stone for the game’s younger players.
It is exactly the process that produced Rob Cross, with the world champion dominating the Challenge Tour the year before his historic victory over Phil Taylor changed the darting landscape forever.
It is a victory, Caven emphasises, that has changed the way that the sport’s young players look at their chances on the circuit.
“When I first started, I’d look around and see Colin Lloyd, Rod Harrington and Dennis Priestley. These youngsters look at Van Gerwen, Aidy Lewis and these guys and they want to beat them. It’s not that they don’t respect them – they do, but they know that they can beat these guys.”
It is, he explains, the Cross effect. If the prize money now accessible in the sport was not sufficient motivation for the game’s next generation, Cross’ tangible demonstration of the implausible becoming routinely achievable has provided watertight proof of golden opportunities.
“It’s because of Rob’s progression over the last 12 months,” he says. “People have gone out and bought a dartboard because they’ve seen that it is possible and that they can literally give themselves six months to get themselves ready and give it a go the following year.
“Rob’s story has done so much for the longevity of the sport and has raised the top level that the sport will reach in the near future. It will be frightening.
“His World Championship victory has done more good for darts, the future of the sport and for the whole world to see than anything you could ever imagine.”
When Caven speaks of the future, he does so not with his own career progression in mind, but out of consideration for those under his wing. The Jamie Caven Darts Academy (JCDA) operates under the umbrella of the Junior Darts Corporation, which then feeds into the PDC.
Its objective is simple, with children through a range of ages taking part. The project has arrived in schools in the Derby area, with Caven keen to push the benefits that the sport provides to mental maths.
A man for whom darts provided a most unlikely journey into professional able-bodied sport, there is a thrilling passion in Caven’s voice as he talks up his young charges.
“We have got one who is eleven years old and, while I don’t like to single people out, but he is special,” he says, combining wary praise with a sense of pride in his voice.
“He played in the first two JDC Tour events and reached the quarter-finals of them, aged 11. He averages about 85. He plays full county darts for Derbyshire and as far as we are aware, that makes him the youngest ever in the men’s county setup.”
Given all that Caven has faced during an inspiring career and having, himself, been cast as the sport’s burgeoning young hope, there could be few men better readied to guide any youngster on their path into a sport that has never appeared so attractive.
Featured photograph: PDC